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Authenticity as an aesthetic category implies an internal state of the individual as a source of originality and uniqueness that can be expressed to the outside (Bohn and Hahn 1999, p. 51). The ideal of authenticity demands that human beings search for their own identity within themselves and articulate it (Taylor 1995, p. 93). Authenticity as an ideal is connected to social developments that arise in the twentieth century: individualization and social differentiation. These pave the way for ideas of personal authenticity as a main topic of modern identity conceptions.
A Key Concept of Modern Identity
Authenticity is not an isolated ideal, but stands within a narrow connection, within the history of ideas, with the ideal of autonomy as mindful self-determination (Wetzel 1985, p. 7). As a term relating to the individual, authenticity first appears in the Romance era, which sees its apex in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. One of its central characteristics is the juxtaposition of the principle of inwardness of the individual with principles of rationality and its largely impersonal relations (Herma 2009, p. 25). Though versions of this perspective can already be found with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and especially with Johann Gottfried Herder (Taylor 1995, p. 38), the current discourse of authentic as “true,” “genuine,” and “intrinsic” arises in the twentieth century (Knaller 2007, p. 22). It paradoxically becomes a normative category, instructing the individual how their self-expression, and finally their being, must be organized to be legitimate in contemporary Western societies, thus giving rise to a presentation (Goffman 1959) and negotiation (e.g., Strauss 1993) of authenticity work (Gubrium and Holstein 2009).
Authenticity entails the demand to become similar to oneself, to find the “true inner self,” to put the search for authenticity and identity into the focus of modern narratives of self (Herma 2009, p. 19), and to live unconstrained through identification with social roles (Ehrenberg 2010, p. 163). It is thus a program of liberation of the self from the constraints of tradition. The growth of individual autonomy brings with it a more personal tone in social life, a more internal tone in action, and a more dispositional state than sheer mechanical obedience (Ehrenberg 2012, p. 495). This is the moment that marks the birth of the modern individual as it starts to think itself as someone who draws the interest of others because she/he is a meaningful and unique individual, not because she/he achieved something meaningful (Trilling 1972, p. 24).
This modern paradigm of subjectivity is based on a program of autonomy with aesthetic foundations (Knaller 2007, p. 142). Within it, the agency of the individual becomes emphasized, with higher levels of responsibility: in a state of autonomy, the “self” must assert itself, one’s personality must show itself, and the individual must reflect itself; it must appreciate and value itself (Ehrenberg 2012, p. 495). It requires a load-bearing narcissism in order to be able to act. The resulting discourse on authenticity thus describes a certain positive quality of the individual’s relation to itself and is normative in the sense that it suggests that the individual will have a full, successful, and happy life if it acts as authentically as possible, as often as possible (Strub 2009, p. 39).
The Paradox of Authenticity as a Cultural Norm
Authenticity, then, is a normative category: it regulates how an individual should be and serves as a prerequisite for successfully constructing one’s identity.
Lionel Trilling (1972) notes that the last three centuries saw a shift from sincerity to authenticity. In the frame of sincerity, to follow the moral call to be true to oneself means to avoid falsehoods and deceptions toward others (Trilling 1972, p. 9). With the shift from authenticity to sincerity, the balance between the general-social and the personal-individual is replaced by a strong emphasis on the latter. Authenticity becomes both the means and the end of “being true to oneself”; thus, it starts to function as a category that compensates for frustration. It rescues the individual, overtaxed by modern expectations, by assuring it that the true self is not social at all (Strub 2009, p. 41). To the eyes of contemporary Westerners, this shift seems like the advent of the unity of person and self and thus like the fulfilment of a long-desired wish. Trilling consequently concludes that the popularity of the discourse of authenticity in the present is no great surprise. However, with it comes the experience that localizing the self is impossible in the absence of any external reference (Strub 2009, p. 41).
This foregrounding of a quasi-natural, personal authenticity takes a measure of the individual by assessing the freedom of contradiction in the self, recurring to formulas such as “true,” “real,” “genuine,” etc. (Herma 2009, p. 58, p. 93). However, the norm to “be sincere to oneself” gives rise to an indelible contradiction. If we want to be authentic, we may not be like another. The question Trilling raises is how to get there. The conventions that cultural images of authenticity bring are devoid of all content, since that is exactly what one has to find for oneself without orienting oneself to any prescriptions. Being a self as a true and singular entity is now the only prescription to follow; the authentic self now has to paradoxically rely on something that it does not know what it is but at the mercy of which it nevertheless finds itself (Strub 2009, p. 42). “If one is true to one’s own self for the purpose of avoiding falsehood to others, is one being truly true to one’s own self?” (Trilling 1972, p. 9). This difficulty arises when private and public mix, where “true sincerity” toward oneself is impossible if the moral aim includes a public goal (Trilling 1972, p. 9). Yet, the pursuit to solve the mystery of the self has continued unabated. In Freud, it has even found a protagonist who founded an entirely new academic discipline in search for the self, and still, “we are still puzzled to know not only the locus of the self to which we are to be true, but even what it is that we look for” (Trilling 1972, p. 5). The contradiction has remained dormant, since, as Trilling notes, authenticity as a social imperative has been much more successful in camouflaging itself as such than older such imperatives (Trilling 1972, p. 161). One could also say that the negotiated social meaning of “contradiction” does not, usually, arise in contemporary everyday life, except when the streamlined nature of modern authenticity becomes notable with cynical, ironizing discourses of the 2000s: “I’m unlike everyone else, just like everyone else.”
Alain Ehrenberg (2012) arrives at a similar conclusion by tracing the development of the “American spirit” from character to personality. While character, as an ideal of the individual self, has a moral dimension strongly connection to ascetic Puritan ideals, personality has a psychological dimension and marks the ideal of self in a culture that lays emphasis on personal fulfilment (Ehrenberg 2012, p. 67 f.). Ehrenberg thus gives us the personal equivalent of the change in frame Trilling describes: While the ideal self was once forged as character, oriented to the ideal of sincerity, personality is oriented to the ideal of authenticity. Clear moral prescriptions that told the sincere character how to be, how to act, and how to feel now give way to the imperative to be an independent and self-governed personality: an authentic individual that finds the sources of its being and its actions within itself rather than in external prescriptions. Ehrenberg identifies this internal self, which used to be the traded under that brand name of “soul,” as a constructed fiction: the spirit, the psyche, and the mental self are terms modern humans utilize to describe what happens within them and in being so used gain their semantic reality and their normative power (Ehrenberg 2010, p. 10). As a term of ascription – and a value judgment – for individuals, authenticity as a term does not enable the individual to arrive at general and intersubjectively anchored descriptions of itself: its paradoxical foundation allows no sustainable definition of self. Knaller (2007, p. 22) notes that it is impossible to live authentically if “I can only define authenticity in recourse to myself ... as an autological, recursive term, authenticity is frozen in paradox,” and individuals are tasked with constantly solving this paradox – again, for themselves.
Theoretically, the paradox described above cannot be dissolved. However, the individual’s self-presentation is geared toward fulfilling the expectations of an audience (Goffman 1959, p. 35). The model thus demands its application not merely in the individual’s self-image but also in everyday interaction. In order to be effective, cultural ideas need to be embodied in social practices (Illouz 2007). This raises two questions: What reference points does the individual use in search of its inner’ self and its authentic being? How does this presentation of self enter the plane of social interaction?
The age of authenticity comes with an appreciation in value of emotions. While earlier conceptions of personal subjectivity include cognitive, normative, and affective elements of the self, more radical forms of subjectivism see affectivity as the only authentic self-reference of a person (Schimank 2002, p. 80). In the 1970s, Ralph Turner notes “substantial shifts away from an institution towards an impulsive emphasis” (Turner 1976, p. 997). The second half of the twentieth century thus sees an intensification of subjectivism toward an emotional decisionism (Schimank 2002, p. 80).
To be able to assure oneself of one’s individual authenticity, one must be certain that one’s actions mirrored one’s feelings – independently of the question whether they fulfill the expectations of others involved in the situation. In a society geared toward personal authenticity, an action is not good in itself but only becomes so through the personality of the individual that engages in it (Sennett 1992, p. 26; Sennett 1992, p. 11). In an environment where authentic expression is the norm, breaking social expectations in the name of one’s own feelings then does not necessarily lead to social sanctions but can be justified with one’s own authenticity and can even become a source of and cause for respect. The authentic self finds its true expression where it loses grasp of its expressions, in what Goffman had still called “flooding out” (1959, p. 55). This gives rise to an industry of distrust that perfects the techniques of locating the “true” self behind the official presentation (Strub 2009, p. 42). This concentration on inner selves leads to “mental self-optimization” as an answer to the question, “what is a correct life?”: Being in accordance with one’s feelings transform the present to a therapeutic society, the search to “be at peace with oneself” as the most important aspect of a life well lived (Lasch 1980). Eva Illouz (2007) speaks of “the rise of Homo Sentimentalis” as characteristic for the current conception of the subject.
Where self-actualization through a complete fulfillment of one’s own personality and “potential” becomes the main engine of life, behavior that hinders such fulfilment becomes “emotionally unhealthy” (Illouz 2007, p. 47). The norm of authenticity unfolds its power over the structure of actions through a constant survey of the self, propelling individuals to make sure that their “true,” “own,” “inner” feelings stand in the center of their lives. From a perspective of cultural criticism, such endeavors are bound to fail, since “the more privatized the psyche, the less it is stimulated, and the more difficult it is for us to feel or to express feeling” (Sennett 1992, p. 4).
In order to ensure the appearance of the authenticity in the presentation of self in social interaction, this presentation should match the biographical, psychological, and physical idiosyncrasies of the presenter – as ascribed by others (Knaller 2007, p. 22). The formulation “appearance” here already points to a specific achievement embedded in this expectation: The individual must stave off the impossibility to find such an authentic, true self dramaturgically and bridge the difference between it and the cultural ideal. Since the self as a role presented by the individual is nothing organic, but a dramaturgical effect that unfolds within a scene, the problem is believability (Goffman 1959, p. 213). The view thus shifts, from what is authentic to what looks authentic: The actor can be seen as believable, here: as authentic, if certain actions are enriched by something that can be identified as “personal” and specifically particular to the presenter.
Associating authenticity with the call to be true to oneself implies a double achievement: On the one hand, the audience must be able to recognize a coherence between current and former presentations of self, and the hopes and wishes we formulate for the future must fit the image others have constructed of us. On the other hand, this presentation may not calcify so much, as the benchmark for believability lies in the ascription of an identity between presented and “real” feeling (Trilling 1972, p. 2). This, in turn, gives rise to the expectation of a continuous renewal of the person in relation to an emotional frame of justification. This does not mean that fixed convictions cannot be seen as “authentic”: An individual can be believable precisely because it is identified as one that keeps to its known convictions. Any change in expression or moral stature requires a justification in a shift in its inner life.
This emotional frame of justification makes the current ideal of an authentic personality much more plastic than its predecessor, the individual limited through disciplinary fences. Just like current norms order the individual to “become oneself,” past norms ordered it to be disciplined and accept its role, while there is no reason to assume that the disciplinary frame produces less subjective experience than the authenticity frame. “The personal” is a normative artifact and, like all normative artifacts, it is wholly impersonal (Ehrenberg 2010, p. 122).
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